The Psalms Cry Out To Be Sung

Since I have been wont to beat the proverbial drum about singing Psalms in corporate worship over the years (see inclusive hymnody, Psalms for Advent, predominant psalmody, and well-rounded worship), I think it appropriate to point you in the direction of another excellent resource on Psalm singing. William Boekestein is the very capable and humble pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA, a sister church of ours in the URCNA. That church is embarking on a four-year journey through the Psalms, and to kick it off he preached an excellent sermon called “Singing the Psalms.” Hop on over to Sermon Audio and give it a listen; it’s well worth your time.

In light of Calvin’s pithy saying that the Psalms are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul and Westermeyer writing that “the Psalms may be spoken, but they cry out to be sung,” Rev. Boekestein argues that “worship without Psalms is like preaching without Scripture, because it is missing divine inspiration.” He breaks his sermon into two main parts: why sing Psalms and how to sing Psalms. His basic outline is this:

Why Sing the Psalms?
1. Psalms were undoubtedly Israel’s inspired songbook.
2. Psalm singing is central to New Testament worship starting with Jesus and continuing today.
3. Psalms stretch our Christian consciousness.
4. Psalms help us to know Jesus better by revealing Him and presenting His experiences in prophetic form (Luke 24:44).
5. God commands it, and it is the Word of Christ (Colossians 3:16).

How to Sing the Psalms
1. Sing Psalms by way of personal appropriation: they must become ours.
2. Sing Psalms with an attitude that reflects the attitude of the psalm.
3. Sing Psalms with gratitude when the Psalms don’t express our current attitude (especially laments).
4. Sing Psalms with love for the work of God in Christ, as they remind us of our Suffering Savior and our Conquering King.

His discussion of the Psalms stretching our Christian consciousness was especially helpful, and what I would like to summarize here. He contrasts this aspect of the Psalms with much of the contemporary self-focused, self-reflective, comfortable worship music today by highlighting five examples of this consciousness stretching.

Psalms Stretch Our Christian Consciousness
1. Psalms help us to fight when we would rather coast (e.g. Psalm 144). The Christian life isn’t a nice euphemistic “journey,” but a war. The Psalms help gird us for spiritual battle.
2. Psalms help us lament when we would rather rejoice (e.g. Psalm 143). Laments are the most frequently appearing Psalms. We can sing them because they remind us of and identify us with suffering Christians worldwide; they remind us to prepare for trouble and trial, because it’s coming; and they remind us to bring all our troubles to the Lord. They also remind us of Christ and His suffering. See my post on singing Psalms of lament for more.
3. Psalms help us to repent when we would rather cover up (e.g. Psalm 32, 51)
4. Psalms call timid Christians to be bold with God (e.g. Psalm 44), especially since we can speak boldly through Christ.
5. Psalms help us worship when we would rather complain (e.g. Psalm 42).

There are many more helpful points of teaching and application in the sermon, so I commend it to you. Rev. Boekestein is also an accomplished author, with a co-authored book on Advent and children’s books on the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort.

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Remembering and the Lord’s Supper

Keith Mathison’s Given for You is an excellent, careful treatment of the true Calvinistic/Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, which has fallen into a Zwinglian memorialist view among the Reformed for the last couple centuries. Mathison shows how Calvin’s complex, beautiful, scriptural view of the Lord’s Supper fell on hard times among the Reformed starting with the Puritans and continuing through the Princeton giants. He is painstakingly thorough and historical, though unfortunately this makes it read more like a long seminary paper than a mainstream book. His treatment of Calvin, Scripture, and Passover in the context of refuting the memorialist view is particularly helpful, with a page quoted at length here:

“Just as some have taken the words ‘This is my body’ to an ill-conceived extreme, others have taken the words ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ to the opposite extreme. Both extremes are erroneous. The words ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ do not refer to a purely subjective mental recollection. Understood within the Passover context, this phrase points to the idea that the congregation becomes contemporary with Christ’s act of redemption. As Thiselton explains, ‘If we press the analogy with the ‘remembrance’ of the Passover in the Haggadah, making contemporary is achieved primarily by projecting the reality of the ‘world’ of the Passover and drawing participants of later generations into it.’ The fact that ‘remembrance’ is not merely mental recollection is clearly demonstrated by comparing the use of the word in other contexts.

“‘To remember God’s mighty acts’  or ‘to remember the poor’ is not simply to call them to mind but to assign to them an active role within one’s ‘world.’ ‘To remember’ God is to engage in worship, trust, and obedience, just as ‘to forget’ God is to turn one’s back on him. Failure to remember is not absent-mindedness but unfaithfulness to the covenant and disobedience. ‘Remembering’ the gospel tradition or ‘remembering’ Christian leaders transforms attitude and action. To ‘remember’ the poor is to relieve their needs.”

Those who reduce the Lord’s Supper to an act of mental recollection are imposing modern modes of thought on the text of Scripture. Those who reduce the Supper to an act of subjective mental recollection do so with no exegetical warrant. By doing this, they divest the sacrament of most of its true value, importance, and meaning, thereby leaving little more than an empty shell.”

-Keith Mathison in Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (P&R, 2002), p. 232 [Mathison quoting Thiselton in the middle]

Baptism points due north

“One practical way this lifelong benefit of baptism is used is when the Christian struggles with sin and doubt. As John Calvin said, ‘Therefore, as often as we fall away, we ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our mind with it, that we may always be sure and confident of the forgiveness of sins.’ Baptism is a reference point for the Christian. It is like a compass that points us due north, to Christ and our life in him. This is what Martin Luther is reported to have said to himself every morning: baptizatus sum, ‘I am baptized,’ and when he was asked ‘How do you know you are a Christian,’ he said ‘I am baptized.’ This is a statement of faith for the one who embraces Christ and his benefits signified in baptism.”

-Daniel R. Hyde in In living color: Images of Christ and the means of grace (2009), p. 147

The gospel and the mind: book review

In an age of anti-intellectualism, scientism, and mind-numbing electronic media, how are Christians to live, learn, and glorify God? In The Gospel and the mind: recovering and shaping the intellectual life (Crossway, 2010), Bradley G. Green explores the connections between the Christian gospel and the pursuit of knowledge. In his work, Green leans heavily on such Christian intellectual heavyweights as Calvin, Aquinas, Athanasius, and especially Augustine to respond to other philosophers like Derrida, Nietzsche, and Saussure. Spurred on by the perception that “wherever the gospel goes, it seems to generate intellectual deliberation and inquiry,” Green has written a fully-orbed and persuasive apologia of the Christian intellectual life as the primary and best context from which to study the world.

Since Christ died to redeem all of who we are, this includes our minds. Thus, “any sort of meaningful intellectual life will be rooted in Christ and the gospel” (p. 178). To flesh this out, Green examines five interrelated theological themes and their relevance to the intellectual life: the realities and necessities of creation and history; the concept of a telos or goal to all of history; the cross of Christ; the nature of language; and knowledge, morality, and action. He presents a twofold thesis: “the Christian vision of God, man, and the world provides the necessary precondition of the recovery of any meaningful intellectual life; and the Christian vision of God, man, and the world offers a particular, unique understanding of what the intellectual life might look like” (p. 13-14).

It is obvious from the start that Green is well-read and painstakingly researched this book.  He writes clearly and professionally, bordering on the scholarly. Green offers persuasive arguments for the Christian intellectual life, and I was very encouraged and challenged by this book. The sections on the five above themes dovetail with each other nicely, and Green effectively weaves together these themes to serve his thesis. While doing this, he interacts with beloved philosophers of the anti-Christian world, discusses the importance of history and creation, shows how modern and postmodern thinkers have taken away any type of hope for life by rejecting the telos of history, points out the destructive influence of sin on the mind, and more. He quotes extensively from myriad thinkers and philosophers to make his point, and the book is filled with excellent quotations. At times it reads like a string of quotations with Green’s voice just filling in the gaps and giving structure to the arguments.

Perhaps the most persuasive, challenging, and insightful section is the closing chapter on the moral nature of knowledge. Knowledge is not neutral, as many contemporary thinkers would have us swallow. Green expounds here on Calvin’s conviction that to know God is to honor God, and “the honoring is included within the knowledge itself” (p. 150). Thus, as Calvin writes, “our mind cannot apprehend God without rendering some honor to him.” From Calvin, Green launches into a biblically saturated discussion of the moral nature of knowledge, supported by the Psalms, Proverbs, prophets, and Paul. The conclusion, drawn also from Calvin, C.S. Lewis, and Cornelius Van Til, is that all knowledge is more than just knowing facts, but is actually personal and moral. Thus, “to live in this world is to face a moral responsibility and duty” (p. 161). This responsibility is to know things truly, as they are known and understood by God. Though we are finite beings and cannot know omnisciently as God knows, we can know in light of who God is and what he has spoken to us in his word. This is how, as Kepler wrote, we are able to think God’s thoughts after him. And if this is the case, then

“as we have seen, God has revealed himself to all persons in the created order, then all persons know God and are engaged in the moral, willful, ethical submission to or rejection of the God of Holy Scripture at virtually all moments of their existence…Thus, nothing can be truly understood unless it is understood in relation to the God who created and currently sustains the world.” (p. 161-162, emphasis his)

The gospel comes into this discussion of the moral nature of knowledge in that when our hearts have been changed by the Holy Spirit and our minds are renewed by Christ, our moral wills and our natural loves will also be different. Following the Apostle Paul’s and Augustine’s discussions of this, Green argues that we cannot really know what we do not love: “Augustine seems to be saying that the reason we can know only what we love is that only in love are we able to understand what something is really like in terms of what it is ultimately capable of becoming…God is to be loved, while all other things are to be viewed in relation to that ultimate love” (p. 166-167).

Thus, we serve a “personal, relational, triune, and rational” God, who is

“not primarily sensed or felt – although that is part of our experience – but known. This, the fundamental goodness of knowledge is at the heart of a Christian understanding of the intellectual life. This God has made a world, and this world reflects the one who made it. We humans as image bearers reflect God in a unique way, but the world as a whole ultimately reflects the God who made it. And hence, the Christian faith encourages attention to the world, its structures, and its mysteries.” (p. 178-179)

While one of its strengths, Green’s precise scholarship and philosophical interactions might also be one of the book’s downfalls. If one of the purposes of this book is so that Christians will be spurred on by the gospel to recover intellectual pursuits, I’m not sure this book is the starting point. It does not score very high on the accessibility meter. The chapters on the nature of language are especially technical and dense (as admitted by Green). I am afraid that Green’s valuable work will mostly be read by the “choir” – Christian intellectuals and Christian lovers of knowledge – and not by those who might need this book. Green’s scholarly, philosophical, and sometimes technical discussions is not the best introduction to those Christians seeking to recover intellectual pursuits. I wish it were, though. It is sadly ironic, but if “non-intellectuals” are the audience, this would not be the first book to give them. But I do hope this important book receives a wider audience than it probably will.

Note: Crossway provided me with a copy of this book for review purposes.

Sunday Citation

“No government can be happily established unless piety is the first concern; and that those laws are preposterous which neglect God’s right and provide only for men…it is fitting that [magistrates] should labor to protect and assert the honor of him whose representatives they are, and by whose grace they govern…As if God appointed rulers in his name to decide earthly controversies but overlooked what was of far greater importance – that he himself should be purely worshiped according to the prescription of the law…

“Princes themselves will in turn remember that their revenues are not so much their private chests as the treasuries of the entire people, which cannot be squandered or despoiled without manifest injustice. Or rather, that these are almost the very blood of the people, which it would be the harshest inhumanity not to spare. Moreover, let them consider that their imposts and levies, and other kinds of tributes are nothing but supports of public necessity; but that to impose them upon the common folk without cause is tyrannical extortion.

“These considerations do not encourage princes to waste and expensive luxury, as there is surely no need to add fuel to their cupidity, already to much kindled of itself. But as it is very necessary that, whatever they venture, they should venture with a pure conscience before God, they must be taught how much is lawful for them, that they may not in impious self-confidence come under God’s displeasure.”

-John Calvin in the Institutes, sections 4.20.9 and 4.20.13 on “Concern for both Tables of the Law” and “Concerning the right of the government to levy tribute”

Sunday Citation

I’m immersed in the section on sacraments in Calvin’s Institutes, and I’m learning quite a bit. I have been been struck that present-day Calvinists would probably balk at Calvin’s deep scriptural and spiritual views on the efficacy, mystery, and importance of God’s work in and through the sacraments, considering how it seems like we’re all functional Zwinglians when it comes to the sacraments. Calvin’s section on the sacraments is brilliant, and some excerpts are worth quoting at length here (from book 4, chapter 14, sections 1-17).

“[A sacrament] is an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels before men…a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward him…[section 1]

“…a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself, and of making it more evident to us and in a sense ratifying it…It is not so much needed to confirm his Sacred Word as to establish us in faith in it. For God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough, and it cannot receive better confirmation from any other source than from itself. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before is in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings…[3]

“…Since the Lord calls his promises ‘covenants’ and his sacraments ‘tokens’ of the covenants, a simile can be taken from the covenants of men. What can the slaughter of a sow accomplish unless words accompany the act, indeed, unless they precede it? For sows are often slain apart from any inner or loftier mystery…The sacraments, therefore, are exercises which make us more certain of the trustworthiness of God’s Word. And because we are of flesh, they are shown us under things of flesh, to instruct us according to our dull capacity and to lead us by the hand as tutors lead children…[6]

“…Sacraments are truly named the testimonies of God’s grace and are like seals of the good will that he feels toward us, which by attesting that good will to us, sustain, nourish, confirm, and increase our faith…[7]

“…But the sacraments properly fulfill their office only when the Spirit comes to them, by whose power alone hearts are penetrated and affections moved and our souls opened for the sacraments to enter in. If the Spirit be lacking, the sacraments can accomplish nothing more in our minds than the splendor of the sun shining upon blind eyes…[9]

“…God uses means and instruments which he himself sees to be expedient, that all things may serve his glory, since he is Lord and Judge of all. He feeds our bodies through bread and other foods, he illumines the world through the sun; yet neither bread nor sun is anything save in so far as he distributes his blessings to us by these instruments. In like manner, he nourishes faith spiritually through the sacraments, whose one function is to set his promises before our eyes to be looked upon, indeed, to be guarantees of them to us…Our confidence ought not to inhere in the sacraments, nor the glory of God be transferred to them. Rather, laying aside all things, both our faith and our confession ought to rise up to him who is the author of the sacraments and of all things…[12]

“…Christ is the matter or the substance of all the sacraments; for in him they have all their firmness, and they do not promise anything apart from him…[16]

“…Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.” [17]

Conference Learnings

Our church hosted a conference this past weekend on “Calvin for Today.” It’s been great to see so many people celebrating Calvin’s legacy in this, the 500th year of his birth. But to be honest, it’s been a little overwhelming, and much of the recognition has bordered on hero worship. The conference this weekend was fantastic, though, and a great celebration of Calvin’s legacy: as a gifted man of God involved in a greater movement to recover biblical teaching, restore proper church authority, rediscover proper ways to worship. The conference wasn’t so much focused on Calvin and his teachings as it was on the biblical legacy of the Reformation. We learned a lot, and still have lots to digest from the talks, but here are some random things I learned/needed to be reminded of:

1. The Reformation was primarily a conservative movement, not a revolutionary one. The reformers wanted to re-form the Rome-dominated church while maintaining the unity of the church universal. It was also primarily a movement centered around questions of the true worship of God.

2. John Calvin would be ashamed of us for giving him so much recognition this year. He was a humble, quiet man who wanted all the glory to go to God. He was buried in an unmarked grave, since he didn’t want anyone to set up any sort of memorial or shrine to recognize him there.

3. Calvinism is not the thinking of one man, nor can it be boiled down to the “five points” or predestination, but it is a total biblical worldview that was recovered in the Reformation. Fundamental to Calvin was human sinfulness and its effects in all of life, with reliance on God. A right view of man and a right view of God is essential.Calvin and others took Luther’s “discovery” of justification by faith alone and applied it to the reforming of the entire church and culture. It is also utterly gospel centered on an earnest appeal to believe and be saved through Christ alone.

4. Calvin never taught the Five Points of Calvinism, though aspects of them were present in his works. The Five Points of Calvinism were a response to the Remonstrance, a movement of the Armenians to thwart Calvinism after Calvin’s death. Armenians came up with the Five Points of Armenianism, to which the Five Points of Calvinism were a response.

5. While the reformers reacted against the oppressive papal authority and wanted to get vernacular Bibles into the peoples’ hands, they did not hold to the “just me and my Bible” perspective so rampant in evangelicalism now. They did not mean sola scriptura as the Bible only, but instead that there is absolutely no higher authority than the Bible. The reformers recognized the validity and necessity of a robust theology of the church, reliance on historical interpretations, the church fathers, the corporate nature of biblical study, creeds and confessional documents, and a well-educated clergy and laity to help interpret the Bible with the Scriptures as the highest authority.

6. The primary theme of the Reformation and what should be the theme of any modern reformation is the glory of God: soli Deo gloria. Something we should always ask ourselves related to our vocations, our worship, our study, and our Christian practice is How concerned are we with the glory of God?

7. The Reformation saw true Christian doctrine intimately intertwined with Christian practice; Christianity was and is vibrant enough for all of life. The important concepts of vocation, worship, and study were related to this as well. When we think theologically, the practical things we do are deepened and influenced by the knowledge of God. Thinking God’s thoughts after him is an essential aspect of the Christian life.